The Key to My Existence.
By Ema Nymton

 

 

Wanted: one model for daytime work at local shopping mall. $300/hr plus benefits.

Thinking back, it WAS too good to be true.

Katrina had found the interview to be innocent enough. The man responsible for hiring was named Johnny Cornwall. While he examined her portfolio, she took a moment to peruse him. He was not a handsome man. His receding hair had started to meet his bald spot, and his frame was far from muscular. No wonder he acts so nervous, Kat thought, I could probably break him over one knee. Actually, her more toned physique was a bit better suited to the occasional marathon than brawling, life in New York often prompts such training.

The guy seemed a bit ill at ease, but only in his hands, like he didnít know where to put them. His voice wasnít filled with confidence, but it didnít quaver either. She was wondering what sort of person he was when Johnny looked her right in the eye, and said, "I think we can use you. Iíll give you a 10% raise over your last job. When do you want to start?" Which put all thoughts about this little fellow out of her mind.

"As soon as youíre ready, I guess." Having been dumped by her old firm, and turned down on many occasions this month, Katrina was quite eager to make the switch from emptying her savings, to filling them. While radiantly beautiful, she lacked the starved waif appearance that had become increasingly in vogue. Her two thoughts on that matter were that sheíd likely outlive the models stealing her job, and that if she didnít find something soon, sheíd be among their number.

"Great, welcome aboard." Johnnyís hand extended. She shook it firmly. Then he made a wrenching motion, and pulled her arm free of her tan jacket. This came as a bit of a shock to her.

"What the hell! Is this an episode of the twilight zone? How did youÖ?" Her gawping at her now limp sleeve and the inert limb in Johnnyís grasp would have made any fish proud.

"Pretty much." Replied Johnny, "In here, the universe considers you to be a mannequin. That means youíre plastic, and have joints like this." He pointed to the metal pin protruding from her left arm.

After she regained consciousness, Johnny explained that she had fainted. "Do you feel all right? Can you stand, or do you need a hand?" She thrust her vacant shoulder at him. He winced, "Bad choice of words. Right then." He helped her out of her jacket, taking great pains not to dislocate her other arm in the process. Then he replaced the limb.

"This is not what I signed up for. What is going on here?"

"Well, basically, I, um," he fidgeted for a moment, then looked her straight in the eye. "I am, essentially, not human."

"Great, this should make the tabloids, Ďalien turns models into mannequinsí."

"I am not an alien. My people have been on this Earth for ages. Weíve been called djinn, demons, elves, and worse. I think. I never knew my true parents, so itís possible that Iím just a freak of nature. I twist reality around me. Itís a useful ability, as you can imagine."

"So, why me? Why did you do THIS to me?" She grabbed him by the collar and lifted. Or tried to. Her new form had substantially less mass than her old, and while still possessing the strength to lift the small man, she lacked the ability to balance the load, and ended up falling on top of him.

He helped her off of him as he attempted to explain. "I owe a man. I donít recall the debt, but I am bound to help. Iím bound in a way no mortal contract can bind."

"HowÖ How can you be forced to honor a debt you arenít aware of?" Her fingers clicked against her forehead as she tried to scratch it. Subsequently running her fingers through her hair resulted in it landing on the floor. "Great." She then sat down, picked up the wig her hair had become, and set it in her lap, and decided to sit very still.

He didnít seem to notice. "As I said, Iím not entirely human. Can you imagine a man conjuring up a demon to perform tasks?"

"I guess."

"I am bound in that manner. I couldnít even guess what the payment might be."

"So, yourÖ is he your boss, or owner? Why does he want this?" She gestured at her body.

"I call him Master, and I donít know. All heíll say, and I know that itís got something to do with the reason for my being bound, is Ďas far, as you knowí. Itís driven me nuts that he puts that pause in the middle."

"So, what, exactly, is my situation here?" She held up the wig. "I have a feeling that I need to know now, before something else goes wrong."

"OK. Yes. You have become a living mannequin."

"Duh." Earning her a look of disapproval.

"This wasnít my idea, remember? You are, pun not intended, a shell of the woman you were earlier today. Youíve just noticed the weight loss effect. You retain mobility, while Iím around. You donít eat, drink, or breath, save by habit. Without my presence, Iím afraid consciousness is the best you can manage, and thatís optional. Thatís good and bad, as youíll be experiencing more than a little boredom in the course of a dayís work. I canít say when you get a change of shift, as thatíll depend on when Iím permitted to." Johnny made a face about that bit, then continued. "You will, while the store is closed, most likely be visited by Master."

She blinked. Then, she winced at the click her lids made as they met. "Iím going to stand in a store, all day. And, at night, I get to be molested by your boss. Hell, I thought my last real job was bad. Now, I get all the downs of that secretary work, and I get to be an inert object. Ugh, why donít you just make my day and crack that lamp over my skull? Oh, wait," knocking her hallow head, "no skull. Look, Iím just going to go home and soak in a warm bath, and forget about this whole interview, OK?"

Johnny made no move to stop her, but let her walk right out of the office. She made it into the empty corridor, and stopped. She didnít mean to, but her legs just seemed to stop working. "Youíre right at the edge of my reach. Not physical reach, but, you knowÖ Just reach out and try to make a fist." She extended an arm, and found her hand totally unresponsive. She stepped back, crouched, and let out a few sobs.

"Look, itís not so bad. YouÖ you donít age, your living expenses have dropped considerablyÖ"

"Thatís because Iím not living, you dolt!"

"No, youíll be alive. Thereís still hope for you. Dead is a bit different. Thereís really only one thing that can die, and thatís hope. And youíre the only one who can kill that. Do you hear me, Kat? You arenít dead until you lose your hope. This is important. No matter how bad it gets, you canít kill your hope. Iíve seen things that would make your bloodÖ that would frighten and disgust you, and the thing I canít put up with is the loss of hope." He was practically shaking her shoulders by this point, emphatic in the extreme.

"What hope, you said yourself that Iím going to beÖ used. As soon as the store closes." She looked up into Johnnyís face to find a rather evil little grin.

"I said heíd visit you. Come with me." She followed, confused, intrigued and, to Johnnyís relief, distracted from her plight. "In here, slip into this." He handed her something straight out of a Victoriaís Secret catalogue. Literally, he just reached into the page, and pulled. Kat saw the model reaching to cover herself as Johnny closed the advertisement. She agreed, and stepped into the changing room. After she got her old outfit off, Johnny knocked on the door, and pushed her wig underneath. "Look in the mirror." She saw her figure. She noticed the lines where she could be manipulated, even disassembled. She saw the sheen her new skin cast. She saw a perfect female shape. She sawÖ that she need not fear molestation from any man. She smiled, thinking of this Master.

"Heíll be in for a bit of a shock, wonít he?" She called out.

"Perhaps. He asked me to hire a model to become a mannequin in a store. He asked me to take whatever steps I could to insure that you would not be missed, and no one would be suspicious. You came in response to his ad, and were the first candidate who was unemployed and unattached. Your family will believe they hear from you regularly, thanks to my employer. I donít know exactly how heíll manage it, but they wonít fear for you, and wonít look. It wouldnít help, weíre presently in another time zone from your neighborhood.

"Iím rambling. The thing is, he studied up before defining my contract. He may have intended you to have the physical endowments, or lack thereof, of a Ďnormalí mannequin." He had to stop and swallow, as she had just stepped out into his view. "Wow. You see, he may have had this in mind, knowing that I will, where possible, take him literally."

"Thank you, even if it was what he asked forÖ I think. You know, I had hoped to have children one dayÖ and sex, with someone I actually likeÖ"

"I think, after my contract is dissolved, I can again follow my own heart. You shouldnít have to stay like this forever."

"Iíve heard more comforting statements. Like Ďladies and gentlemen, return to your seats, there is nothing to worry about.í" Still, she smiled.

"OK, letís get you into place. Remember, the worst he can really do is annoy you. You should be able to just fall asleep. I guarantee you will be able to muster more patience than he. If he can even tell what youíre thinking." They walked right into the mall. People were still bustling about as Johnny led her to the lingerie department.

"Wait, why doesnít anybody seem to notice me?"

He gave her a look, then made a gesture with his hand, a stereotyped casting motion. "Hello? Wishmeister here." She couldnít recall Johnny acting soÖ loose. She smiled and started to chuckle when she stopped. "Sorry about the timing, but itís such a warm, natural smile. Iím just being a bit picky, but itís a one in a million look, and I donít want to waste it. Iíll carry you the rest of the way. I hope you donít mind." Still smiling, inside and out, she didnít mind. She was a bit surprised when he took a few pictures, after getting her in place. "Iím serious, this is a look worth saving."

In the remaining two hours before the store closed, all of the lingerie in the style she was wearing sold out. Men, understandably, stopped to look, and stared. Women looked, then stopped. Children walking by paused to see that magnificent frozen smile. At one point, a seeing eye dog stopped and wished it could explain to itís master how radiant this beautiful woman was with that unguarded natural smile. Teeth whiter than real teeth get, surrounded by lips whose color would not fade. A flower planted in the middle of the mall turned to face that gleaming smile. Had there been more time in the day, the only thing left in that store would have been hangars. Kat was not used to that much attention. She liked it.

Like all good things, it had to end, and the mall closed for the evening. Johnnyís guess had been correct. A man walked through the mall near midnight. As he approached the glass doors he held up a talisman of some sort, and walked through the glass. Kat watched him approach. He was dressed as though he were headed for the opera, at the turn of last century. Red silk neckerchief, cape, cane, top hat, the works. He might, Kat decided, also have passed for a carnival barker.

"Greetings, my beauty. I see that my servant has done his job well." As he stood before her, admiring her. She saw that the Ďtalismaní, was a small key, like you might use to wind an old pair of roller skates, only rather larger. "Letís see if this works." He removed the key, and walked behind her. She felt and heard him press the key against her back. And then again. Then he came around the front, and tried to push it into her somewhat abstract belly button. Giving that up, he held it before her eyes and acted as though he was attempting to hypnotize her. She saw that it had the letters ĎASFRí written on it, but nothing happened.

He pulled the waistband of the panties, looked in, frowned, then looked at her face again. "You are the one he procuredÖ So why canít I make you move? This is the key, it got me through the doorÖ" He held it up like he did at the door, then reached forward, slipped, and fell right through her. Inside, Kat was laughing up a storm.

The man got up, cursing the evidently lacking instructions heíd been given concerning the key. "Johnny! Come forth!"

Kat was expecting a rush of smoke, but Johnny simply reached out and tapped his master on the shoulder. She was certain he hadnít been there a minute ago, right? "Sir?"

"This key does not seem to activate her. Why?"

"Perhaps, because it does not possess that function."

"Why didnít you obey my instructions?"

"I did everything you said."

"I asked you to provide for me a lady as in that story I had you read."

"No, you did not. You stated that you wanted such a lady, you then told me to get a woman to be a mannequin in this store. I did as you bade me. If you have a problem with my servicesÖ"

"I meant that you should produce a fem-bot, with a wind up mechanism to activate."

"Oh."

"All right then, how can I make this key work on her?"

"You canít, itís not designed for that, neither is she."

"I just asked you to make it possible."

"No, you said you had, earlier, meant something other than what you had asked me to do. At no point have you asked me to change anything." Had she the ability, Kat would have been howling with laughter.

"Then, change her!" Cat stopped laughing internally, and started to, externally. "Why is she laughing?"

"You should probably ask her. Iíve told you that I donít possess the ability to read minds."

Master growled under his breath, then, "What is so funny?"

"The two of you, arguingÖ"

"You find my frustration amusing." Master gave her a rather cold look that suddenly made everything seem a lot less funny. "Johnny, do something unpleasant to her."

Johnny sighed, "all right." And pulled off one of her arms and handed it to her.

"You call that unpleasant? Thatís just irritating!"

"Sir, you didnít specify the degree."

"All right then," Master paused to think, failing to notice Kat bringing her left elbow down on his head, grasped firmly in her right hand.

"You didnít tell me he was such a jerk." As she reattached her limb.

"I thought it was implied."

"How could you end up in debt to an asshole like that?"

"If I knew, I wouldnít be here."

"Shall we leave then?"

"We canít. Youíre only active around his key. I canít touch him, and heís got it ensorcelled against theft."

"So, I have to stay here and wait for a jerk I just knocked out to wake up?"

"No."

"Great, what can I do?"

"Wait while the man you just stunned gets up." As her jaw dropped, Master rose.

"All right, weíll see how a little time changes your mood." And left. Johnny pulled out his photo, and blew on it. She found herself as she was before the man she only knew as Master had shown up. Johnny then mouth the word Ďhopeí, winked, and then he wasnít in the building. Kat was still thinking over the events of the day when the mall opened.

The next day, the crowds got a bit rougher. . As people kept coming in, the owner chose not to remove the mannequinís outfit. Everything else sold out in the store.

The store owner had to call security after a couple of customers tried to take the outfit off the mannequin, one to take home to his wife, the other to wear for her wife. In the ensuing struggle, Kat was tipped over, which wouldnít have been so bad if two of the combatants hadnít subsequently landed on top of her. No one was more sickened by the following crunch than Kat. She discovered that mannequins experience no pain. She also found out what it feels like to be swept into a plastic bag.

After what seemed like ages, the Hefty bag was opened, and Johnny looked in.

"Mannequins donít bleed, do they?" Was Katís first question. It seemed rather pertinent.

"No. Lousy break, huh?" That deserved the grimace Kat gave it. As well as the raspberries she blew at her temporary savior. "Sorry I couldnít get here sooner, but Master doesnít often give me time off. Heíd have visited a day ago, but he found out about the little incident, and gave up."

"Wait, why am I active? I thought I needed his key?"

"I had instructions to return the place to the way we found it, that included you." He started pulling bits out of the bag, starting with the head.

"How bad is it? Will I ever be up for another marathon?" She tried to peer into the bag from her perch on some sort of workbench.

"Good news, I have all the pieces. Bad news, I canít use my magic. Good news, this shop has all the magic I need to fix you up. Bad news, itíll take a while." That turned out to be a mild understatement. It took him two weeks of work to rebuild each arm. And he wasnít able to work straight through, as he was at Masterís beck and call. Still, Kat did have him to talk to, and he left a TV on for her when he went out. Of course, as she couldnít change the station, for her detached hands couldnít reach the controls even if they had been animate, this was as much blessing as curse. She used much of the time to think, sleep, and watch "South Park", when it came on.

One day, Johnny came into the workshop looking a bit pale. "Heís coming, Iím sure. He wants to know what Iíve been spending my free time on."

Kat, having spent days thinking of what she would do if she had that jerk in front of her was quick to give Johnny instructions. She had him set the TV to country and assemble as much of her as was ready. Thatís head on torso, left arm attached, and cracks and holes on the torso, growing worse the lower. She stayed on the stand Johnny had erected, so the fragile lower section of her torso bore no stress. "Johnny, follow my lead, and be irritating. Okay?"

"All right. Iíve been practicing that for ages, in spite of his command to treat him politely. But, do you think itíll do any good? Remember how you ended up after last time."

She pointed at one of the larger gaps, "Oh, yeah, I forgot. Relax and do what comes naturally. Iím going to try to get him to give you a command you can wiggle free with. And, come over here, just in case the worst happensÖ" She grabbed him and pulled him in for a kiss. "Now get ready to let your Master in. And donít lose hope!" He caught the glimmer in her eyes and smiled. He opened the door to the little shop as Master attempted to knock.

"Come in, welcome to my workshop."

"Hello, you insufferable twit, how have you been?" Kat cattily asked.

"What? Sheís alive? I thought you couldnít bring back the dead?"

"Who said she was dead? She was broken, sure, but thatís fixable."

"So, do you like me better this way?" She wiggled as seductively as a broken being can. "Is this what your sick desires wanted?"

"No, I wanted a robot, this isnít how I wanted you to be." Master stated with tension.

"Oh, so you wanted me to be a little love-slave? Like Johnny, only more your type? Or, is he your type?"

"No, he is not my type. Youíre just trying to upset me."

"Look, you try spending a couple of months as a jigsaw puzzle, and see how you feel. So, if want me so badly, why donít you let Johnny fix me?"

"Yes, Johnny, fix her up." Johnny complied, and she found herself a complete mannequin again.

"Johnny, would you leave us alone for a minute? I think I need to talk to this Master in private."

"Master?" Asked Johnny.

"Yes, do as she says, Johnny."

"Oh, and Johnny," Katís grin was never wider than at that moment. "Consider yourself free of obligations." She had been expecting Johnny to change into a great powerful being like djinn or demons are usually depicted. She expected lightning bolts to fry the man who she knew only as Master.

She was a bit disappointed as he merely stood up straight, up to his full 5í2", and walked towards Master, spun him around by the shoulder, and planted a knee very solidly into the manís groin. Turning the manís shout of "Noooo!" into a few whimpering sobs

"Aaah. Iíve been waiting to do that for a very long time." Kat hopped off the table and took the key from the whimpering manís neck. "What do you want that thing for?"

"You told me once that youíre only clue was his statement, Ďas far, as you knowí. I think he said, the initials on this key, ĎASFR, as you know."

"Great, now, I just have to find out what an acronym means." He made a half grin. "Itís better than before, I guess."

"Canít you just ask him?" Then she saw that the man formerly known as Master was fading from view. "Whatís with him?"

"Heís been around for a while. He used to be a lot smarter, not even magic can do much against madness or senility, at least, not long term. My aid to him stopped with my freedom, and in that moment, all the effects of time upon his mind that I was staving off returned. His mind is mush. And so is everything in it."

"Well, I do have a couple bits of good news for you. First, I do know what ASFR means." Johnnyís look was surprised joy. "Second, no great rush in returning me to normal." Johnnyís face switched to confusion, and she continued, "I guess Iíll just have to show you what it means." Again, the Kat grinned. Then she pushed him onto a workbench.

Now, the interesting thing about this whole adventure, for me, is that Master, whoever he was, could have had what he desired, if heíd asked with anything approaching tact. Moral of the story: He who grabs a Katís tail, often gets scratched.